‘A nice wel­come for the for­got­ten’

State Viet­nam veter­ans visit D.C. with Honor Flight

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - MEG JONES

WASH­ING­TON - They came be­cause they wanted to visit their bud­dies. They wanted to see the names of men for­ever 19 or 20, men who never aged or grew gray or started fam­i­lies or got on with the rest of their lives af­ter serv­ing their coun­try.

They came to ex­pe­ri­ence the ca­ma­raderie only peo­ple who have served in com­bat, no mat­ter how many decades ago, feel when they come to­gether. And though they weren’t ex­pect­ing it — they also re­ceived the he­roes’ wel­come veter­ans of other wars had got­ten but was cru­elly de­nied to many of them.

A group of 80 Viet­nam veter­ans trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Saturday on the first Stars and Stripes Honor Flight ded­i­cated to men and women who served dur­ing that con­flict.

Ste­wart John­son came to visit John­nie Vaught Jr. John Phe­lan wanted to see Bob Gasko. Ted Peller Jr. was pay­ing his re­spects to Danny Siko­rski. Hal­bert Al­gee stopped to see Mur­phy Pleas­ant Jr.

John­son, 68, a re­tired Mil­wau­kee po­lice of­fi­cer, planned to leave a medal awarded to him for sav­ing some­one’s life in Viet­nam. His daugh­ter, Kelly Becker, en­cour­aged him to in­stead take a pic­ture of his medal and leave that at the me­mo­rial at the spot where Vaught’s name is listed among 58,000 others who lost their lives in Viet­nam.

Two days af­ter Vaught found out in a let­ter that he was go­ing to be a fa­ther, he was killed dur­ing a pa­trol in Septem­ber 1968, re­called John­son. Vaught saved John­son’s life.

“He pushed me away as the bul­lets started fly­ing,” said John­son, a Marine who wore a hat iden­ti­fy­ing him as a Pur­ple Heart re­cip­i­ent for shrap­nel in­juries from a B40 rocket-pro­pelled grenade.

He car­ried the photo of his medal and set it on the ground at the panel with his friend’s name but didn’t linger — it was too emo­tional for him. Becker stayed be­hind to make a rub­bing of Vaught’s name as a keep­sake for her fa­ther.

All Honor Flights are emo­tional for veter­ans spend­ing a day vis­it­ing mon­u­ments and mu­se­ums in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and it was for the Viet­nam vets on Saturday who are get­ting their turn to travel on the free trip now that the ranks of World War II and Korean War veter­ans are rapidly dwin­dling.

Port Wash­ing­ton-based Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, which takes mostly veter­ans from south­east­ern Wis­con­sin on half

a dozen trips to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal each year, an­nounced this sum­mer it was tran­si­tion­ing to Viet­nam veter­ans. World War II and Korea veter­ans will still get pri­or­ity, but the char­ity’s board of di­rec­tors “knew we’d get to this point some day,” said Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Pres­i­dent Paula Nel­son.

All veter­ans who served dur­ing the Viet­nam era, not just those who served in the coun­try, are el­i­gi­ble.

“I think the (Viet­nam veter­ans) have been very pa­tient. They’ve seen what we’ve done with the World War II and Korean War vets,” Nel­son said.

Af­ter the an­nounce­ment, ap­pli­ca­tions from Viet­nam War-era folks be­gan flood­ing in — now near­ing around 1,000. On Saturday, in ad­di­tion to the 80 Viet­nam veter­ans, a sec­ond plane car­ried 56 Korean War veter­ans and 15 from World War II, rang­ing in age from 61 to 97, in­clud­ing two women.

When the planes took off from Mil­wau­kee early Saturday, air­port fire trucks saluted the veter­ans with wa­ter can­nons and two war­bird planes es­corted the Delta air­lin­ers. On ar­rival at Wash­ing­ton Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port, they were greeted by a crowd of well-wish­ers, Scouts, a high school band play­ing pa­tri­otic mu­sic and folks hold­ing signs, “Thank You For Your Service” and “God Bless You.”

Peller, 70, of Nashotah, served in the Air Force in Viet­nam in 1969-’70. He fondly re­mem­bers Siko­rski who lived in his neigh­bor­hood, the brother of Peller’s then-girl­friend. Siko­rski was fea­tured in David Maraniss’ book on Viet­nam “They Marched Into Sun­light.”

When Peller was com­ing home from Pu­laski High School in Mil­wau­kee one day he got beat up, and not want­ing his par­ents to see him, went to Siko­rski’s home to get cleaned up. Siko­rski was up­set to hear Peller had been beaten and he ran out and tracked down the guys who did it.

“He was that kind of a guy. Kind of like a Gen­tle Ben,” said Peller.

Peller was see­ing the Viet­nam Veter­ans Me­mo­rial in D.C. for the first time and was bowled over by the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Get­ting off the plane, walk­ing down the hall­way (at the air­port in D.C.) — wow. You keep things pent up for so long,” Peller said as he slowly walked through the Pen­tagon me­mo­rial and pon­dered the loss of life on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to come here. Al­ways found a rea­son not to come: money, kids, work, col­lege. I can’t say enough about the kind­ness and gen­eros­ity of the Honor Flight or­ga­ni­za­tion,” said Peller.

As veter­ans and their guardians drew near the V-shaped me­mo­rial ded­i­cated to the men and women killed in Viet­nam, many be­came silent, lost in their thoughts. Some, like John­son, brought items to leave be­hind. Some wept. Some saluted.

Al­gee, 70, of Mil­wau­kee who served in the Army in Viet­nam, 1968’70,

got a let­ter from his folks telling him the news about the death of Pleas­ant, a child­hood friend and North Di­vi­sion High School class­mate.

As Al­gee fin­ished dark­en­ing a white sheet of pa­per with his friend’s name in pen­cil he said, “I knew some­body who served and gave his all. It’s emo­tional.”

Phe­lan, 68, of Green­field, looked for the names of four peo­ple in­clud­ing his wife’s cousin, a high school class­mate and Gasko, who de­ployed to Viet­nam with Phe­lan. Gasko was killed a day af­ter he got his as­sign­ment upon ar­riv­ing in Viet­nam.

Phe­lan re­cently un­der­went treat­ment for lung and throat cancer and car­ried an oxy­gen tank as he toured me­mo­ri­als Saturday. He served in Viet­nam from 1969 to 1970, leav­ing the war-torn coun­try at noon on Christ­mas Eve, land­ing in Cal­i­for­nia on the same day and time, cour­tesy of the in­ter­na­tional date line, and then catch­ing a 9 a.m. flight home to Mil­wau­kee on Christ­mas Day.

Phe­lan vividly re­calls leav­ing 101-de­gree heat in Viet­nam, land­ing in 83-de­gree heat in Cal­i­for­nia and ar­riv­ing in cold Wis­con­sin.

“It was 13 be­low in Mil­wau­kee. And I haven’t warmed up since,” said Phe­lan.

Michael Bernier, 69, of Theresa served in both the Navy and Army in two tours of duty in Viet­nam be­tween 1967 and 1971. Sev­eral of his bud­dies are named on the black gran­ite wall.

“This day more than ever is very emo­tional for me,” said Bernier. “It’s out­stand­ing, very in­spi­ra­tional. A nice wel­come for the for­got­ten.”

Anne Fritsch also

knows peo­ple on the wall, though she doesn’t re­mem­ber all the names of the men she treated as an Army phys­i­cal ther­a­pist who served two tours of duty in Viet­nam. Fritsch, 90, of Wauwatosa joined the Army med­i­cal corps in 1951 when five of her Mount Mary Col­lege class­mates told her how much fun they were hav­ing in the mil­i­tary.

She treated Korean War am­putees and po­lio vic­tims at a Bat­tle Creek, Mich., mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal. In 1968, she spent a year at the 8th Army Field Hos­pi­tal in Nha Trang, Viet­nam. Many of the men she treated had lost limbs from land mines or were suf­fer­ing from frag­men­ta­tion wounds.

“We’d get them in the morn­ing and we had them on their feet by the end of the af­ter­noon. If we got them up right away and started their ex­er­cises, they re­ally didn’t have time to think of them­selves as dis­abled and they suf­fered less phan­tom pain,” said Fritsch.

She re­turned to Viet­nam in 1971, trav­el­ing through­out the coun­try to teach ba­sic phys­i­cal ther­apy tech­niques to Viet­namese mil­i­tary medics. Fritsch had never ap­plied for an Honor Flight spot be­cause she didn’t want to take an­other vet­eran’s place, she said, but fi­nally sub­mit­ted her ap­pli­ca­tion.

As she vis­ited the Air Force Me­mo­rial, chang­ing of the guard at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery, the Viet­nam Veter­ans Me­mo­rial and other me­mo­ri­als, she was greeted like a rock star, as were the other veter­ans.

“I think every man is say­ing the same thing — why didn’t we have this when we came home?” said Fritsch.

MEG JONES / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Hal­bert Al­gee, 70, of Mil­wau­kee stands at the Viet­nam Veter­ans Me­mo­rial Wall rub­bing the name of Mur­phy Pleas­ant Jr., a child­hood friend and North Di­vi­sion High School class­mate killed in Viet­nam in 1969. Al­gee served in the Army in Viet­nam 1968-’70 and trav­eled to the wall in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., with a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Saturday. See more photos at json­line.com/news.

Ken Kol­latz, 68, of New Ber­lin greets well-wish­ers at Wash­ing­ton Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port Saturday morn­ing af­ter get­ting off a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight from Mil­wau­kee. The Port Wash­ing­ton-based Honor Flight an­nounced last sum­mer that it was tran­si­tion­ing from World War II and Korean War veter­ans to Viet­nam veter­ans for its free trips to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

MEG JONES / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Ste­wart John­son, a re­tired Mil­wau­kee po­lice of­fi­cer, took a pic­ture of a medal he re­ceived in Viet­nam for sav­ing some­one's life to place be­neath the name of a fallen buddy at the Viet­nam Me­mo­rial in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., dur­ing a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight.

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